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Tobacco Trial Opens in Minnesota
By Elizabeth Stawicki
January 19, 1998
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Minnesota's mammoth tobacco trial begins January 20 with jury selection in St. Paul. It's a case that's attracted national attention because many analysts contend it delivers the biggest threat yet to the tobacco industry. The state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield are suing the major tobacco companies to recoup smoking-related health-care costs.

MINNESOTA ATTORNEY GENERAL and gubernatorial candidate Skip Humphrey says Minnesota is armed to go to trial with what he calls the "smoking howitzers" of previously secret tobacco company files. Those files, he says, show the industry lied, covered up, and deceived the public about the dangers of smoking.

Humphrey: This industry promised a long time ago to give all of the information about the health effects of its product, and instead it went on a public-relations campaign where it hooked kids, misused the information, used all sorts of ways to really violate our laws.
Minnesota's case may be tobacco's toughest legal challenge yet. Minnesota has strong consumer-protection laws and has a better chance than many states in making its anti-trust charges stick. Minnesota's partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield means it benefits from Blue Cross's health care expertise and its legal support; and, finally, Minnesota has amassed the biggest cache of internal tobacco company documents to date.

Despite that, Philip Morris attorney Peter Sipkins says the tobacco companies will prevail in court. He says there are no revelations in Humphrey's arsenal of documents, even though tobacco had fought vigorously to keep them private.

Sipkins: I don't think that there's anything contained in these documents which, had it been fully disclosed, would have impacted in any way, in any decision of the Minnesota legislature to regulate tobacco any differently than it did. Similarly smokers - individual smokers - had they knowledge of what's contained in these documents would not have made a different decision.
Nevertheless, other attorneys general around the country are watching Minnesota's case with a keen eye. Among them: Indiana Attorney General Jeff Modisett.
Modisett: It'll be the first time that many of the people in the tobacco industry have really been put on the spot and asked the tough questions. It'll be the first time that a lot of these documents that have been secreted away for decades will hit the light of day. Some of these documents have already been reported in news articles, or on the radio, or maybe in a book written by a reporter, but we haven't really seen them put together with all of the new documents that've been disclosed under the litigation.
The national tobacco legislation is in limbo. Congress still needs to approve the settlement in which the tobacco companies would pay $368 billion in exchange for the states dropping their suits. Humphrey is a vocal critic of that deal. However he says he's open to a settlement if the tobacco companies agree to restrict advertising, make public previously confidential documents, and pay billions more than they've offered. Otherwise, he says the trial goes forward, particularly since the case has gotten unexpectedly personal.

Humphrey says Johns Hopkins Medical Center recently told him his father's death from bladder cancer in 1978 was smoking related.

Humphrey: I didn't know that when we started this lawsuit, but I want to tell you, it means something to me. If I could've had my father - if this state, if this country, and this world could've had my father - for ten more years, that would've made a lot of difference.
Humphrey says the state will move ahead with its court battle despite the possibility of national tobacco legislation. Humphrey and Blue Cross and Blue Shield say the proposed settlement which includes immunity from future lawsuits is too good a deal for the tobacco companies. What's unknown is whether national tobacco legislation would override a Minnesota victory. The trial is expected to last at least four months.